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May 1991 - Nightflying Column (Ampside Chat) - Ears - Part 2
by Lee Tomboulian

An Unscientific Volume Autobiography or, My Onanistic Relationship With My Ears, part two.

Since last month's column, I found out that I have moderate damage in my left ear. For some reason, my right ear is still pretty much intact.

I found this out be going to a hearing clinic (Grever Hearing Clinic, in the Doctor's Building in Little Rock). Carl Grever, an audiologist, put me through an "air conduction" test, that is, beeps through headphones. I had been having a little ringing in the morning, but it wasn't till I started writing last month's column that I really noticed it or stopped ignoring it. Duelling proverbs: "When ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise." Yeah, William, but an ounce of prevention...

When he broke the news of my damage, my mind started flashing through the possible causes...throughout my life...When I was your average geek 7th grader (as opposed to your average geek columnist) on summer vacatin, I joined a 'Mott-the-Hoople' copy rock 'n roll band, the world's worst. Oy. I hope the drummer has found his true calling by now... We had two guitarists, bass, drums and I played a Farfisa Organ whose treble could perform laser surgery. Of the two guitarists, one was ok, one reasonably bad. Then an intriguing new guy in town showed up who could actually play Mick Ronson's guitar parts from Ziggy Stardust, and whose parents acually allowed him to have hair down to his shoulders. Rather than cleanly kick out the reasonably bad guitarist, they just all played, turning up louder and louder in a Cold War frenzy of 10's.

When I showed up for 8th grade, we had our mandatory hearing tests, which I wasn't worried about since I'd always passed them with flying colors before.

"You have a little high end damage. That's not good. What have you been doing this summer anyway?" the nurse asked, nasally.

I flashed, not on the band so much, but on late nights listening to Zappa and Yes on headphones up pretty loud, to catch what Rich Wakeman was doing on Mellotron way back in the mix. "But now I have hearing-loss (self-abuse!) compounded by staying up late! BAD."

I was a little shaken. (Not as much as now.)

Later on, in college, I played in jazz and dixieland bands. Now, those dixie players are loud! Clarinet trombone and trumpet all going to town at once, are intense, musically and volume-wise. But that's relative.

In 1977, I went to hear my idols Emerson Lake and Palmer at Barton Coliseum, and was it loud?. Well, I'll tell you. When they did the "Stones of Years" parts of "Tarkus", every fourth bass resonated my chest cavity uncontrollably. This was my intro to big time rock 'n roll volume, besides hearing a Zappa-Mahavishnu Orchestra double bill in '76. Mahavishnu on guitar would play those high ultra-piercing unison lines with Jerry Goodman on violin, and my sister Teddie and her husband Jim would start to clasp their hands over their ears. Uncool! I was cool. I didn't do that. Even though there was an unwanted melody formed by the distortion rattling around in my head.

Then I started playing rock 'n roll gigs,since I didn't want to work at Hardee's again. Since I didn't drink or smoke dope (I have since, shall we say, relaxed about that a little), I started noticing how, the more some players drank, the louder they played even though they started missing a lot of notes. If you're playing sloppily, you'd think you'd regroup, recenter, quietly. (It takes a lot to drown despair.) A vicious cycle: the worse they played, the more they'd drink, and the louder they played.

I remember reading the great critic Ralph J. Gleason writing about a Who concert and how the extreme volume was okay if the band was tight as the Who. On the other hand, in the case of the long-forgotten opening act, the band wasn't as tight, and the volume was nauseating, headache-producing, "illing." If nothing else, if you're already favorably disposed towards the music, you'll handle the volume better, but if you're not you won't.

Likewise, Mike Keckhaver, music critic and musician, agrees that tinnitus has everything to do with positive attitude, and to a lesser extent, caffeine and alcohol consumption and other things within the control of the patient. Like ear plugs.

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Tulsa wildman/multi-instrumentalist Randy Crouch used to say about halfway through the first set at a rowdy bar: "Is it too loud enough yet?" The painter Robert Ross used to say loud rock'n' roll was a "counter-irritant to high school", a balance of oppression by self-induced oppression. (Robert is the same guy who complimented my piano playing, he said he liked its "onanistic" quality. I looked it up and found out Onan was a son of Noah disfavored by God because he "spilled his seed on the ground" and didn't reproduce.)

The twentieth-century classical composers, my early heroes like John Cage and K. Stockhausen, have had wildly divergent attitudes about rock music and volume. Cage said that rock was not so much about melody, harmony, or even rhythm, but about "immersion in the river of sound". Stockhausen, conversly, hated rock 'n roll and its volume, because it reminded him of growing up in Nazi Germany standing up in a stadium with 150,000 other Aryan youth in their short pants, all singing the same song.

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